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Great brand strategy requires loving, not just knowing your customers

Often as businesses grow, customer intimacy is lost. But just make sure the way you think about them is brimming with love and respect, says Saatchi & Saatchi chief strategy officer

By Richard Huntington

One of the lessons I learned early in my career was from a legendary ad man called Peter.

Peter was the Mead in Abbott Mead Vickers. Though many ad people of his generation were of the private school and Oxbridge variety, Peter was not. He began in the mail room at J.Walter Thompson and worked his way to the top of both the ad industry and at his beloved Millwall Football Club, where for a time he was the Chairman.

Peter said many wise things. To this day, I use his belief that “people say you need the courage of your convictions but if you have conviction, you don’t need courage”. It’s a reminder that confidence is just an act and belief, specifically self-belief, is far more powerful.

But he said something else that I think about almost every day. At the time there was a terrible habit in our industry of calling customers, punters. To be honest it’s something I still hear from time to time.

Punter is a term derived from gambling and implies a fundamental separation between the bookmaker and the gambler.

If you ever used that word, Peter would have a go at you. He believed labelling customers this way not only caused distance between you and the people that you were supposed to be serving but also implied they were lesser than you.

Any language or behaviour that creates distance and disrespect between you and the people you seek to serve is a problem. And the worlds of business and marketing are beset with these twin evils, even if they are wholly unintentional.

Often the issue is that as businesses grow, customer intimacy is lost. As businesses scale you can’t possibly know everyone that buys from you, you can’t even get to know a fraction of the people that use your product or service, so you stop trying. That’s obvious but it is also profoundly sad if you think about it, not to know the people that buy from you. For most in an organisation and certainly many marketers, customers cease to be real people and become data points, statistics and percentages. When this happens, intimacy is lost and respect is often close behind it.

Of course, big organisations have techniques to help resolve this. Most notably customer segmentation and personas. They are attempts to rekindle closeness and understanding but create as many issues as they resolve. Often pushing real customers further away from the minds of the marketer, creating a world in which marketing avatars stand in for people and wishful thinking about customers and who they really are abounds.

However, even if certain amount of distance is inevitable when your customer base runs into many thousands or millions, there is never an excuse for disrespect.

Obviously few brand owners or marketers actively disrespect their customers. But tolerating your customers is one thing, actively loving them is quite another.

The creative director Steve Henry only asked planners to do two things. Firstly, that our strategies revealed something about the brand or category that he had never heard before. And secondly that we describe the audience in ways that made him love and respect them.

In other words, he didn’t just want an explanation of the customers we were going to talk to, he wanted to understand how amazing they were, so he could create better work for them. I have always loved that.

Any attempt to characterise your audience or customers, however you choose to do it, should be infused with love. Your love for them. And every time you talk about that group, your love should be palpable.

When we were thinking about the audience for a new small business offering from HSBC, we described them as independent spirits. As the owners of small businesses they are people with a strong streak of independence running right through them. So much so, that many describe themselves as unemployable and having a marked aversion to corporate life. So, we built an entire proposition around serving independent spirits, creating a brand that loved, served and aimed to preserve their independence.

I recently worked on the brand strategy for a snack where it became clear that the audience were the sort of people that did proper jobs. The work coincided with the pandemic and its restrictions, a context that divided the population into those with jobs that could be done on zoom and those that had to be physically close to others to serve them. Building a snack brand for people with actual jobs that involved doing something more than shouting at a screen felt like a great way to think about an audience with respect and love.

When I was working with a private banking brand, I found it helpful to think of people with wealth in the tens of millions of dollars and more, as creators. Not of wealth, no one creates wealth, but of ideas. To have self-made wealth at that scale and legally means you have created a truly irresistible world changing idea (for instance a desirable electric car or a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t lose suction). An idea so valuable to people that it results in staggering levels of financial reward. It’s that creativity and inventiveness that characterises the incredibly wealthy and provides a way to build respect and admiration for them.

No matter how you approach the thorny issue of identifying, segmenting and focusing on specific groups of people just make sure that the way that you describe them and think about them, is brimming over with love and respect. That you put them on a pedestal so much that you can’t help but admire them and want to serve them. And that you describe them in ways that make you smile and melts your heart.

The customers of your brand are wonderful people not punters. Treat them that way.

Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi

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